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Learn More About
Asian Masks

There are a wide variety of Asian masks. The focus here is India and Sri Lanka. The other areas for Asian Masks will be covered in the Theatre section.

India Masks

The masking tradition in India is surprisingly quite limited for such a large country. There are traditions which reach back several centuries but are currently followed in few places. The current traditions may be broken into three areas:-

Tribal peoples


Religious Tribal

India still has groups of native tribal peoples who use Asian masks for religious and ritual ceremonies. As with African masks they are of simple dynamic styles and have similar uses.

The groups are protected by law and exist in the states of Arunachal Predesh, Orissa and central Madhya Predesh. In Arunachal Predesh the Sherdukpens and the Monpas perform many dances of which Thutotdam is one. The dancers wear masks depicting skulls and skeleton costumes and relate how the soul is received in the after world.

Asian Masks in India: Theatrical

The theatrical traditions of India are often closely related to the re-telling of the stories of Ramayyama and Mahabharata and other Puranic literature. Across the country several festivals celebrate the great stories and the seasons associated with them. For example in Northern India, the Ramaleela is performed in a variety of styles which Jiwan Pani’s ‘‘World of Indian Faces’’ is divided into three categories.

Presentation through a kind of tableaux called Jhankis which has no real narrative element.

Pageants which are representative of the tradition and are in a narrative enactment.

Presentation on a fixed stage, which is a modern innovation. Asian Masks in India Ramaleela tells the story of Rama following the Ramacharitamanasa epic poem of the poet Saint Tulsidas. Presented in cycles, varying in length from 15 to 31 days, the plays may start at different times but all perform the killing of Ravana on the day of Dussehra. The following day is reserved for the meeting of Rama and Lakshmana, with their brothers Bharata and Satrughna.

The all amateur cast perform in very colourful costume with some of the main characters wearing gold and gilt embroidered zari and durga masks and Hanuman wearing a brass masks.

There are other well known traditions of Indian theatre of which Kathakali is probably the most famous. Here the mask is not a manufactured one so much as an applied one.The actors undergo a make-up process, lasting several hours, to transform their faces into living Asian masks. Asian Masks:  Sri Lankan Masks Asian Masks in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a splendid tradition of mask making with masks being used in processions and carnivals and in curative rituals, known as Tovil, and dance drama such as Kolam. All masks are carved from the wood of the kadura tree or similar light weight woods.

Kolam masks are worn for the ceremonial dance dramas similar in tradition to the Indian ones. Over one hundred different characters take part, including Garuda, the mythical bird which the Hindu god Vishnu rode on. There are also animal masks including a tiger, which is not a native animal. Others include the common snake demon, Naga Rasa, with large bulging eyes and a wide mouth with teeth. The Kolam natima, so legend states, arose from the cravings of a pregnant Indian queen for a new kind of drama. Hearing her plea, the god Sakka (Indra in the Indian version ), had masks carved and placed in her garden as she slept. In the morning a shocked gardener discovered them and a book containing the play. The play has evolved over the years but always opens with a retelling of the original story of the pregnant queen.

The other outstanding festival in Sri Lanka is that of Sanni Yakuma. In a night long ceremony, dancers wear masks depicting the demons who cause particular diseases. As the dance progresses the evil spirits who cause the affliction are driven out.

The central figure in the ceremony is Maha kola Sanni Yaka, one of the largest Asian masks. This lord of the masks consists of a large figure atop of masks surrounded on each side by nine smaller panels each showing a type of disease or deformity. The whole mask is entwined by cobras and painted in bright colours.

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